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The FDA Finally Caught Up to Science on Trans Fats

3 minute read

What do you think about the FDA’s decision to ban trans fats by 2018?

It’s stunning. This decision has the potential to prevent a lot of heart attacks and save lives. It’s been long time coming, and I’m proud of the FDA for doing it.

Why are trans fats bad for you?

We’ve known for some years now that there was an association between trans fats and a less-favorable balance between bad cholesterol (LDL) and good cholesterol (HDL). It seems that monounsaturated fats—the kind of fats that are in olive oil—are favorable, and saturated fats—the kind of fats that are in coconut oil—are mostly neutral. But trans fats are clearly harmful.

Over the years, the American diet has gotten loaded with trans fats, which are made by hydrogenating vegetable oils. They’re in about a third of all the packaged foods on the grocery shelves—foods like cupcakes, Twinkies, baked products, and other foods that are manufactured in mass. And it appears that they’re one of the drivers that’s led to the epidemic of heart disease that we’ve faced over the past few decades.

Why are there so many trans fats in our foods?

In the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a big epidemic of coronary heart disease, some not-very-good research came to the conclusion that things like butter and eggs were bad for you, so we advised people to stop eating as many eggs, and the food industry started making margarine. We got it completely wrong. We also told Americans to eat low-fat diets, and low-fat products cropped up everywhere. And that was wrong, too. We’re now correcting a 50-year mistake in dietary advice to Americans.

There’s another reason the food industry started using trans fats: They were moneymakers. They have a longer shelf life and are very cheap to make. The food industry used them more and more until the evidence started to accumulate that these agents are not helpful and are almost certainly harmful with respect to heart disease.

We’ve known trans fats are harmful for a while—what took so long for a ban?

It’s just not practical to do a randomized clinical trial for trans fats, so we’ve relied on observation studies, which look at dietary histories and patterns of eating to try and associate them with heart disease. That’s a longer road.

In 2006, the FDA started requiring companies to disclose that there were trans fats in their foods. That was a good intermediate step: There was a very significant drop in the amount of trans fats in the American diet, but it didn’t completely eliminate them.

What we needed was a national policy. The FDA has the authority to make sure that ingredients used in foods are generally recognized as safe. It’s a big step for the FDA to say to the food industry that a type of fat used in an enormous number of foods can’t be used any more. It took them a while to come to the conclusion, but they’ve done it. We’ve solved the trans fat problem. And that’s a very good thing.

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